Office culture is always evolving, but with the influx of younger workers, the increased ability to work remotely, and the prevalence of personal devices and social media, it feels like recent years have brought some significant shifts. In the 2019 Workplace Boundaries report, Udemy set out to explore the current state of personal-professional boundaries in the workplace, how people are navigating these boundaries (or not), and the effect they have on both employees and companies. 

How are behavior issues in the workplace impacting business performance, employee satisfaction, and productivity? Gallup reports that unhappy, actively disengaged employees cost U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year, so blurring boundaries could have an enormous economic impact.

We’ll share some of the highlights from the report in this post. You can download the full version here.

What’s the definition of appropriate office behavior? 

While many employees are glad they don’t need to purchase a closet’s worth of suits and adhere to a strict corporate hierarchy, what’s rubbing many the wrong way is the lack of understanding around what constitutes professional behavior at work. 

Why is this happening? One contributing factor may be a change in employment trends. For one thing, many entry-level jobs, such as administrative assistants and coordinators, have been eliminated due to automation or organizational decisions. Those were traditionally the places where new workers learned the ropes from a close supervisor. In addition, fewer young employees are entering the workforce with summer job experience (only about a third of teens have summer jobs). As a result, they aren’t as familiar with workplace norms when they secure real office jobs, but no one is explicitly tasked with helping them figure it out. 

Our research indicates that the workplace is fraught with questionable behaviors and crossed boundaries, from oversharing personal information and gossiping to far worse offenses, such as condoning or ignoring body-shaming and bullying. Furthermore, we get the sense that many companies are not doing enough to curb this behavior or clearly communicate expectations. 

Taken together, this suggests an urgent need for companies to create safe spaces where leaders and individuals can discuss workplace behaviors and communicate their norms and expectations to each other. Otherwise, employees won’t know whether their idea of a respectful, professional workplace aligns with what their coworkers have in mind. For example, our research found that 37% of respondents believe their coworkers are too informal in workplace chat or messaging. Without proper training, they won’t have tools for assessing what’s appropriate or resolving conflicts that arise.

“There are a number of reasons that business leaders are struggling with workplace boundaries,” according to Deborah Grayson Riegel, an executive coach, speaker, and CEO of Talk Support, who has taught management and communication at the Wharton School of Business and Peking University. “It often starts when managers in organizations wrongly assume that their workforce ’just knows’ how to interact with each other, not realizing that those expectations must be explicitly discussed, and often vary company to company, as well as across cultures.”

Global, distributed companies are especially susceptible to miscommunication since communicating via technology is much more common than meeting face to face. Learn how Intellective helped its global workforce build emotional intelligence to promote communication and collaboration.

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Managers need support, too 

Other outside research has found that there’s a crisis in management. Gallup reports that just 18% of managers demonstrate a high level of talent for managing teams and that promotions to managerial positions are typically based on factors like tenure and performance in a past role, rather than potential to excel in the next one. This is a real liability, as the skills needed for management are completely different from those for an individual contributor. Millennial workplace consultant Aaron Levy explained in the 2018 Udemy Employee Experience Report that, when people move into management, 30-40% of their time shifts from “doing work” to dealing with people issues.

In today’s fluid and challenging workplace, new managers aren’t getting adequate soft skills training on how to handle the stress and team dynamics, let alone guidance for managing themselves. We see from the responses to our survey that, compared to their non-manager coworkers, managers are feeling more pressure to blur their personal-professional boundaries. Companies could do a lot more to support the transition to management with training around soft skills like communication, conflict management, and emotional intelligence. Check out courses like The Essential Guide for Effective Managers, Mastering Conflict Management and Resolution at Work, and Emotional Intelligence at Work: Mastering Your Emotions.

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For example, more managers than non-managers say they let work take precedence over meals and relaxation time, with 59% of managers (vs. 46% of workers) revealing they feel pressured to work through lunch or eat with coworkers (63% of managers vs. 50% of workers). 

While longer hours may be expected of those moving into management, without effective preparation, managers may find themselves spending a disproportionate amount of time learning on the fly. Perhaps another side effect of this lack of preparedness, managers say they’ve experienced or witnessed inappropriate or discriminatory behavior at work more than non-managers. 

Fifty-three percent of managers (vs. 49% of workers) have witnessed inappropriate behavior related to a coworker’s political or social beliefs, opinions, or attitudes. In addition, 42% of managers (vs. 36% of workers) say they have witnessed body-shaming in the workplace, and 55% of managers (vs. 46% of workers) say they have heard inappropriate discussion of personal relationships and dating. A shocking 66% of all employees have either witnessed or experienced bullying in the workplace.

Workplace boundaries must be clarified 

Currently, there’s very little dialogue and clarity around acceptable workplace behavior. This puts a lot of pressure on managers and employees to figure it out in real time. To support employee happiness and productivity, as well as reduce turnover, it’s imperative that companies support different personalities and work styles by opening the lines of communication around how to coexist peacefully and productively. “An important part of our role as people leaders is to start the conversation. For some organizations, those discussions will reveal whether any boundaries are being crossed, and for others, the dialogue will focus more on how to navigate challenges that have already been identified,” said Cara Brennan Allamano, SVP of Human Resources at Udemy.

“We spend time asking our employees about perks and career opportunities, but it’s time to also ask how we can create an environment where our people feel supported to work more effectively,” adds Allamano. “Noting the ‘silent majority’ uncovered by our research, I would urge leaders to move past assumptions and ask the questions that will provide an authentic picture of their workforce.”

A good place to start would be for leadership to help managers, teams, and individuals establish their own boundaries, since every group and person is different, and there’s no clear consensus on what’s “right.”

Download the full 2019 Workplace Boundaries Report here.